Beijingers’ Liking for Jasmine Tea
Jasmine tea is green tea scented with the aroma of jasmine blossoms. What is interesting is that jasmine tea, a product of south China, has not gained great popularity among southerners, and is instead widely sought after by Beijingers thousands of miles away. Until recent decades, be it at home or in a tea house, Beijingers always liked to treat their guests and themselves to jasmine tea, which was always the predominant variety sold in the Beijing market. Even today, in most northern regions like Beijing and Tianjin, jasmine tea still takes up more than half of the local tea market, which has long perplexed people in southern tea-growing areas.
So what’s behind Beijingers’ special preference for jasmine tea?
It can be traced back to the Song Dynasty (960-1279) when the trend for scented tea came into being. Dozens of varieties of scented tea appeared. However, most of them phased out in time, with only several surviving the taste of locals, and among those tea varieties jasmine tea was the favorite. The popularity of jasmine tea was first driven by the upper class, however during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) it was enjoyed by all walks of life. It’s said that Empress Dowager Cixi had a special liking for jasmine tea, and often presented it as a gift to foreign diplomatic envoys. This royal preference helped raise popularity of the tea among ordinary people. Thus jasmine tea became the dominant drink of Beijingers.
In fact, Beijingers’ preference for jasmine tea can be ascribed to the city’s geographic location. Tea is not produced in north China, and has to be transported from southern regions, which could take months in ancient times. Green tea has a short shelf-life. Even though it could survive the long-distance transportation, it would not taste fresh after arriving in Beijing. Fermented teas like Pu’er and tuocha (a bowl-shaped compressed mass of tealeaves) can be stored for a long period of time, can quicken the metabolism of the body, and tends to make people feel hungry, thus failing to get the nod from tea lovers in Beijing.
In addition, water in Beijing is rich in minerals, and in particular has a high content of calcium, magnesium, and aluminum, and these are not suitable for fragile green tealeaves, which require high-quality water to fully bring out their flavor. In contrast, jasmine tea, as a variety of reprocessed tea, does not have demanding requirements for water quality. Moreover, its scented aroma can offset the flawed water quality and so it went on to win the hearts and palates of Beijing residents for hundreds of years.
Fusion of Tealeaves and Blossoms
Wuyutai is one of the time-honored teashop brands in Beijing, first established in 1887. “Wuyutai first won its fame by making jasmine tea, which is still its main product line,” said Ling Zejie, adding that the Wuyutai jasmine tea scenting technique, having been refined over more than 100 years, is a national intangible cultural heritage. Ling, a 34-year-old inheritor of the scenting technique, joined Wuyutai after she graduated from the tea science postgraduate program of Zhejiang University.
Ling told China Today the jasmine tea’s scenting mainly includes two processes – flowers producing scent and tealeaves absorbing that scent.These processes cover nine steps with detailed and demanding requirements set for each one.
The first step involves picking tealeaves in March and April, but the scenting process can only start after jasmine comes into bloom in June. As for picking jasmine flowers, it is important not to pick them in the morning, on a cloudy day, or within three days after rain, so as to keep the moisture of jasmine flowers low to ensure a more refreshing fragrance.
Jasmine flowers do not give off an aroma until after they bloom. Therefore, as its buds mature, and the petals begin to open, its fragrance starts diffusing, first strong, then gradually weakening, and finally fading when the flower withers. As jasmine flowers usually blossom at night, the bud needs to be picked around 2 pm on the day of budding. Once collected, buds need to be nurtured so as to precipitate blooming. During the process, the buds that have not bloomed should be sifted out. Then, using a calculated formula, jasmine flowers are mixed with tealeaves for the scent infusion process. The blooming of jasmine flowers lasts for a dozen or more hours, during which tealeaves can absorb their fragrance and retain the aroma thereafter. This process is called scenting.
After jasmine flowers have given off all their fragrance, the flowers and tealeaves are separated. Tealeaves are dried and stored for days so as to gradually complete the absorption, thus ending the scent infusion process. According to Ling, for ordinary jasmine tea, the scent infusion process needs to be repeated four to five times. For top grades, it may be repeated as many as nine or 10 times.
“So the jasmine tea making process takes at least a month. If the weather is unfavorable, more time will be needed. It can be said, jasmine tea’s processing technique is the most complicated among all tea varieties,” said Ling.
The scenting process is followed by tea blending, which is meant to create a consistent taste of the drink. “As tealeaves and jasmine flowers are both grown naturally, there is no way to guarantee their consistent quality and flavor, which makes the blending process necessary. The purpose is to enable customers to enjoy a consistent flavor,” said Ling. This is the knowledge Ling, as the inheritor of the time-honored process, needs to learn and pass on to future generations.
The work requires great discipline and sacrifice on Ling’s part. For example, she can’t use any cosmetics or skin products, not even hand cream, as the cosmetic’s fragrance will interfere with her scenting the tea.
“People drink tea for enjoyment, but I drink for work. My task is to remember tastes of different varieties of tea and assess their quality, which is quite challenging,” said Ling. To keep her scent faculties sharp, she has to eat light food all year round. “Pungent food can blunt the palate [which in turn affects her scent abilities]. I’ve gotten used to eating bland food,” she said.
Instilling Vitality into the Traditional Technique
The stereotypical image of an intangible cultural heritage inheritor is usually an elderly expert. That’s why in a live broadcast on March 24, during which Ling elaborated on the tea ceremony, someone left a message asking, “Shouldn’t an intangible cultural heritage master be a senior citizen? How can a young lady be doing this work?”
“Only by appealing to more young people can ancient traditional skills be vitalized,” said Ling. She added that the company has hired a lot of young employees to attract more young customers, as they are more familiar with the trends and ideas of young consumers. “In order to better target young people, we have introduced innovative products,” said Ling.
According to her, in the digital era, Wuyutai has quickened its development pace to keep abreast of the times and present innovative new products. “While focusing on our jasmine tea business, we have also tried orchid tea and rose black tea, and developed the products like tea-flavored ice cream and refreshments. We even opened a DIY store, where our customers can make matcha and tea themselves to truly get a firsthand experience of the tea ceremony culture. All these are quite popular among young people,” said Ling.
Despite all these innovative moves, Ling thinks innovation should be based on the stable quality of products. “Tea is not a product of industrial production. To ensure a stable and consistent taste, we have a lot to learn,” she said, adding that only with more participation from young people can the traditional skills be passed on and improved.